The Beginning of the Fleet Air Arm

In the beginning the Fleet Air Arm was the Royal Naval Air Service.

In 1912 the Admiralty created the Air Department, which begat the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in the same year. From that time until April 1918, when it merged with the Royal Flying Corps into the newly formed Royal Air Force, the RNAS vied with the United States Navy in the development of naval aviation. Each one took a step ahead of the other in turn, until 1918 when HMS Argus, the first authentic Aircraft Carrier, was designed and built for and by the Royal Navy, which in effect, gave the Aircraft Carrier to the world. Japan too, our somewhat bogus ally at that time, gained knowledge of naval aviation from us, often by nefarious means, almost as quickly as we established it.

A few of the very high-ranking officers on the Board of Admiralty with Admiral Sir George Neville at the forefront had the vision to see the value of operating aircraft in conjunction with warships. Once their interest in aviation had been aroused, they studied the many varieties of prototype aircraft that had begun to be designed and manufactured in Britain and other countries. For a long period, until after the end of the First World War (WW1), much initiative and drive was shown in assessing the possibility of each prototype for operation with the Royal Navy. Production orders were placed on a number of manufacturers and, particularly during WW1, Short Brothers and the Sopwith Aviation Company were the most successful. Such strong Admiralty interest in aviation is surprising bearing in mind that the traditional concentration of the Royal Navy hitherto had been towards building ever larger ships capable of mounting ever bigger guns. Also by this time the requirement for submarines and the use of torpedoes were demanding Admiralty attention.

The increasing interest in aircraft from those few less traditionalist and more advanced thinking members of the Admiralty was one thing, but from where would the pilots come able to fly the aircraft and from where would they be able to operate? In those early years of the twentieth century the training of cadet officers at Dartmouth was concentrated on gunnery, seamanship, navigation, RN etiquette, watch-keeping duties, divisional duties and cleaning ship, all more or less in that order of importance. The latter activity of cleaning ship made up a large part of a sailor’s life, particularly aboard battleships and cruisers, but is not to be derided because one only had to visit and smell a French warship in my day to realize the importance of scrubbing out the mess-decks.

With all that in mind, when in 1912 Mr Francis McLean, a wealthy civil engineer and a leading member of the Royal Aero Club, offered to teach a selected number of enthusiastic young naval officers to fly, it is easy to understand that the aviation-minded members of the Admiralty jumped to accept the proposal, which included the loan of two club aircraft for the purpose. The club also offered the use of its airfield, which it shared with Shorts the aircraft manufacturer, on the Isle of Sheppey at Eastchurch on the Kent coast. Four naval lieutenants, Longmore, Samson, Gregory and Gerrard, the last a Royal Marine, responded immediately and were taught to fly, with others quickly following their example. Be in no doubt that learning to fly and flying were very dangerous activities, taking a toll in lives during those early years. It is interesting, as I shall explain, that the same type of courageous amateur aviators became the nucleus of the new Fleet Air Arm in 1937 as it strove to reform itself in time to meet the threat of Germany’s domination of Europe and intended invasion of Britain. Thus the origins of the Fleet Air Arm lie in the enthusiasm and daring of young naval officers twenty-five years earlier who yearned to take part in this new and dangerous adventure.

Those original naval officers spent the following years trying to find some means of operating an aircraft from the deck of a warship. At the forefront was Lieutenant, later Commander, Samson, whose efforts included in 1912 the successful flight from a platform erected in place of the front gun turret of a moored battleship. Later that year he repeated the feat from a warship at sea, which is the first recorded take-off of an aircraft from a moving ship.

Such efforts as these to operate an aircraft from various ships adapted for the purpose continued all through to the end of WW1. Aircraft crashed and pilots were injured or killed in the process of experimentation until eventually in 1918 HMS Argus was built with a flush flight deck clear of any structures from bow to stern, thus enabling aircraft to take off and land as required. Many of the pilots who took part in those early dangerous experiments were of senior rank, such as Commanders Samson and Dunning. Later, in the Second World War (WW2), it was my experience that naval pilots of commander rank (known as ‘Wings’), often only in their early thirties, were appointed as the senior officer in charge of flying on an Aircraft Carrier, from which most of them rarely flew. Although, having made that observation, I have to write that there were some of that rank, highly experienced and brilliant pilots, who continued to fly as leaders of air operations against both German and Japanese enemies throughout their careers in WW2. I shall write more on this aspect of naval aviation leadership in later chapters.

By 1914 at the start of WW1, the RNAS had trained some 200 pilots to fly and had over eighty aircraft at its disposal, mostly seaplanes on floats. It also had five Airships and a couple of Balloons. Even without the dubious benefit of the two Balloons, this would have been a larger air force at that time than was available to the Royal Flying Corps of the Army.

Except in October 1916 when the naval fighter squadrons were formed for the purpose of combat over the battlefields of France, the main role of the RNAS during the war was patrol and reconnaissance of the coastlines and ports in the North Sea looking for enemy shipping and submarines. These enemies were attacked without much success since seaplanes could carry only the very limited bombing equipment of the period. But their sightings of the enemy greatly assisted the Royal Navy surface fleet in sinking shipping in the area. In 1915 an exception from the usual seaplane operations was a successful attack on an enemy merchant ship in the Dardanelles by Commander Edmond. He was flying a seaplane specially built by Shorts to carry a torpedo but the weight of the torpedo gave him a very limited maximum height and range, making his attack extremely hazardous. Yet he made history by successfully completing the first air attack by torpedo. I cannot find any mention of an award for this pilot’s brilliant flying, but such an omission, if there was one, would have been normal for the Admiralty, which then and thereafter has tended to regard aircrew officers flying aircraft directly at the enemy target in the teeth of intense retaliatory gunfire as little different from a gunnery officer lobbing some of his explosive bricks at a far distant target from the safety and comfort of his battleship.

All the time during WW1, experiments continued to be made to find a means of flying aircraft effectively from moving warships.

A major development in 1915 was to convert a liner into HMS Campania, which was equipped to launch seaplanes on light trolleys down a ramp to the bow of the ship and into the sea. The ship could launch twelve aircraft in this manner, but of course on their return they had to land on the water and be plucked up out of the sea by the ship’s crane, inevitably with some damage in the process. Admiral Beatty, while in command of the Reserve Fleet during the later stages of the war, was an enthusiastic supporter of the experiments and efforts to land an aircraft on a warship. In 1917 he caused a light cruiser, HMS Furious, to be adapted during its construction so that, on the foredeck where the gun turret would have been, a take-off platform of 228ft length was built with a hangar also provided. Only one aircraft at a time could be launched since there was no after deck on which a return landing could be made, but at least it was possible to launch aircraft with normal wheeled undercarriage instead of floats. If there was no nearby land, the pilot would have to ditch his aircraft which, even in those days of slow landing speeds and attached buoyancy bags, would have been no fun. In 1917, Squadron Commander Dunning managed to steep-turn his Sopwith Pup ahead of the rear gun turret to land successfully on the tiny foredeck. But he was killed when he attempted a landing for a second time.

Thus Dunning was the first pilot in the world to land an aircraft on a moving ship. He was a wonderfully courageous man, as indeed were all those early experimental pilots.

Later on the superstructure and the rear gun and turret on HMS Furious were removed so that after 1918 the ship became usable as an Aircraft Carrier, although with a slight dip in the middle of the flight deck between where the rear and front gun turrets had been. Furious served as a Carrier until the second year of WW2 when she was sunk.

In September 1918, just before the end of WW1 but too late to take a part in it, HMS Argus was converted from a liner to an Aircraft Carrier. Argus kept going and was of great value throughout WW2 as a training ship on which many new pilots completed their first deck landings. She also carried out convoy protection duty in the initial years of WW2, flying Swordfish and Skua aircraft. In 1942 she was one of the armada of ships and troops that bumbled down to North Africa, to take part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa.

What a wonderful achievement indeed it was for Admiral Beatty and those other far-seeing admirals in 1918 who, after years of experiment, ordered HMS Argus to be designed and built, good enough to be so valuable in a war twenty years later. I doubt if any of the young pilots who landed on Argus in WW2 ever gave a thought to her remarkable history. I know I certainly did not when, lost in bad weather, I was lucky enough to see Argus and force land on her off the Scottish coast in 1941. I do remember being astonished as the old steel deck made clanking noises as my Wildcat taxied forward after landing. Duly rebuked by Commander Air for landing without prior permission, I was allowed to go below for a pink gin and lunch in the lovely old panelled wardroom.

To labour a point, it is so surprising that naval officers of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries apparently have so little knowledge of the achievements in naval aviation made by the Royal Navy in the early years of 1900. It was a time when the Admiralty really ‘came good’, and its success in creating Aircraft Carriers compares perhaps with the early eighteenth century when the Admiralty saw the huge advantage of putting copper bottoms to the hulls of all its ships. Thus, in the West Indies of that time, ships of the Royal Navy sailed rings round the French enemy ships and sank the lot! And I shall take pride again in later pages of this book when I write how the Admiralty pulled itself together after the Inskip Award of 1937 and, in a short period of only two years, created the new Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy. That achievement was a triumph of efficiency and organization. It is surprising too to be informed by a number of retired naval officers that Dartmouth Naval College has never had sufficient pride in the history of Royal Navy aviation to include it in its curriculum.

In 1915 air bases had been established by the Admiralty at Dover and Dunkirk from which the RNAS could conduct its reconnaissance over the North Sea and enemy coastal ports.

These two large land bases alongside sea port bases at Dover and Dunkirk were essential for the RNAS since at that time flying from warships was still in its infancy. Seaplanes with floats were used on reconnaissance duties over the North Sea while, from land, the Navy flew the Sopwith ‘one-and-a-half Strutter’, a biplane with a rear cockpit for the observer/air gunner. This aircraft was used for land reconnaissance and bombing raids on small selected targets such as railway lines in use by the German forces. Sopwith Pups were flown by the RNAS squadrons to give fighter protection to the bombers.

In addition to command and control of the seas around Great Britain, the Royal Navy had been given responsibility for its air defence and for this purpose it used Dover as the main air base. To achieve a stronger defence and to carry out a more vigorous offensive along the enemy coast, the air forces at the Dover and Dunkirk bases were increased to eight squadrons of eighteen aircraft, each squadron being made up of three flights of six aircraft as was the practice at that time. These flights of six aircraft were mostly fighter aircraft in case protection was needed against German bombers reaching over England. However, when the German Zeppelins carried out successful bombing raids on England, the RNAS was given a lot of stick despite the Victoria Cross awarded to Sub Lieutenant Reginald Warneford for shooting down a Zeppelin over London at night. The German bombing raids resulted in the transfer of responsibility for the entire air defence of Britain to the Royal Flying Corps of the Army. The eight RNAS squadrons remained at Dover and Dunkirk for continued offensive missions, which, although important, were of a benign nature for the pilots compared with the ferocious air battles taking place daily over the Somme and other areas of northern France.

Meantime, in the first two years of the war, the Royal Flying Corps of the Army had come under extreme pressure in air combat over the battlefields of France with the German air force of bombers and fighters. In that early period, the German types of fighter aircraft were generally rather more effective than their British opposition, and there were a great many more of them. Further, Germany had many more trained pilots: they had been preparing and training for war during several years past. In Britain the production of aircraft, notably from Short Bros, the Bristol Aeroplane Company and the Sopwith Aviation Company, increased substantially after 1914 and was in full swing and going well by 1916, when the design of combat aircraft also began to develop effectively.

For the Royal Flying Corps the greatest difficulty was the very high casualty rate of their pilots. These casualties were not only incurred in combat over the battlefields of France. Back in England many young pilots were being killed during training, and particularly when cadet pilots advanced to the fighting type of aircraft being used at the front. Indeed, there was one casualty in flying training almost every day, nearly as many therefore as were killed in France. The demand from the fighting squadrons for replacement pilots was such that cadets of eighteen had little more than forty flying hours before being sent to front line squadrons. Of those flying hours, only the final eleven or so might be on the advanced flying of combat-type aircraft. Therefore many of these boys were killed shortly after joining their squadron and before they went out on a combat patrol. In the earlier years of the war, these cadets came from well-known public schools and from the Colonies but, as war continued, potential pilots were recruited from the ranks where soldiers were willing to exchange the trenches for the doubtful possibility of a longer life as an airman.

And so it was that in October 1916, the High Command of the British Army, in its desperate need for air support, took the probably unprecedented step of turning to the Admiralty for help in conducting its land and air battle against the German enemy in France. The following extract is from an Admiralty letter dated 26 October 1916, to the admiral commanding the RNAS in Dover, and shows the immediate response made to the Army.

The Admiralty has decided on the urgent representation of the Army Council to detach at once a squadron of eighteen fighting aeroplanes from the Dunkirk command for temporary duty with the British Expeditionary Force.

The squadron chosen for this task was the Naval 8 Squadron, which was based at Dunkirk and at the time was equipped with one flight of Sopwith Pups, one flight of Nieuports and the third flight of Strutters, which were two-seater fighters having provision for an observer/ gunner. Interesting that, even in those early days, the Admiralty was intent on stuffing an unfortunate observer into fighter aircraft where he was not much use to the pilot except as a gunner, and likely to lose his life. Naval 8, the first naval squadron to see action over the French battlefields, became famous during the remaining years of the war for the success of its pilots.

After a short period of action in France, each flight of the squadron was re-equipped with new Sopwith Pups. The Pup was a single-seater fighter aircraft having a small rotary Gnome engine of only 50hp, which was adequate but had the snag of being so complicated that it required a full servicing every thirty hours. Nevertheless, the aircraft was fast and very manoeuvrable. Within two months of flying the new Pups, the squadron had shot down twenty of the enemy.

Naval 8 was by no means the only Navy squadron to serve and fight with success in France. The demands of the aerial fighting over France and the fast-increasing casualty rate in pilots of the RFC resulted quickly in eleven more naval squadrons being sent to French airfields to take part in the air battles against German air forces. All twelve of these naval squadrons fought famously well and all of them could claim to have produced an Ace pilot. Indeed, they produced a total of thirteen Aces among them during the two-year period of their operations over France.

The immediate success of the naval squadrons so soon after they arrived in France surprised their colleagues in the RFC.

But it should not have been so surprising because, unlike the replacement cadets for the RFC with their shortage of flying hours, most of the Navy pilots had been gaining flying experience in less perilous operations over the coasts of the North Sea. The flying ability of these new naval pilots was probably a hell of a surprise to the Germans too!

Inevitably, however, as Navy casualties rose while fighting over France, so their replacement pilots too were inexperienced and short on flying hours. None of this is to imply that the RFC squadrons were failing in any way because, in spite of heavy casualties, they too were fighting back well and entering into a phase, particularly in April 1917, when the British air forces very nearly overwhelmed the Germans in the air. The RFC had been air fighting since 1914 and by the war end had thirty-three Aces with three times as many squadrons as the Navy, which finished the last two years of the war with fourteen Aces. The definition of the word ‘Ace’ will be found below.

Regarding the high casualty rate for aircrews, both in the RFC and the naval squadrons, it appears totally imbecilic that the Army generals were insistent that the use of parachutes be disallowed. This ban was based on the belief that they would be bad for morale, giving pilots the choice of baling out instead of fighting. The stupidity of it reminds me of the (in)famous description of the British Army as ‘Lions led by Donkeys’.

What a sad shame that the admirals did not look after their own and so provide naval aircrews with parachutes.

The word ‘Ace’ came to be applied originally to a fighter pilot after he had shot down five of the enemy and is thought to have been derived from the word ‘l’as’ which the French Air Force gave to their foremost pilot, Adolphe Pégoud, in 1914 after he had shot down five of the enemy. The British newspapers apparently seized upon the concept of individual fighter pilots building up their score of victories and reported them avidly. There were so many high scorers among all the air forces involved in the war that the title of Ace came to be applied only to those with at least twenty victories.


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